Johnson survived several scrapes with hostile Indians in West Texas
and later in the badlands of the Dakotas, but after he and the Wild
West had both settled down considerably, he sure got skinned when
he bought a span of mules in Austin.
Born Sept. 7, 1848 in Cumberland County, NC, Johnson moved with his
family to Macon, MO in 1853 and from there to Texas.
The Johnsons first settled near Greenville,
but in 1862, they moved west to sparsely populated Tarrant County.
“We lived at this place [a few miles south of Fort
Worth] until I thought myself a grown man,” Johnson later wrote,
“and in 1867 I went west as a cowboy.”
Following a couple of close calls with Indians, Johnson decided to
“quit the frontier” while still possessing his scalp. He moved back
to Fort Worth for
a time before getting four years of schooling at Cleburne.
In 1890, he traveled to Dakota Territory. Based on his experience
fighting Comanches in Texas, the Army
hired him as a scout for 7th Cavalry and on December 29 that year,
he witnessed the infamous Wounded Knee massacre. Soldiers killed some
150 Indian men, women and children while 25 troopers died. That bloody
incident, Johnson wrote, finally broke him of his “wild desire for
excitement” and he returned to Texas.
because his younger sister Mattie lived in Austin,
Johnson settled there after giving up his civilian job with the military.
He and his wife and their daughter Elvira had a house at Watters Park,
a railroad stop in northern Travis County long since absorbed by the
suburbs of the capital city.
Johnson worked as a section foreman for the railroad. His sister’s
husband, Adolph Wilke, also had a railroad job. In the summer of 1897,
Mattie gave birth to a son they named Leroy.
When the Spindletop
oil field blew in near Beaumont
in 1901, Johnson moved there hoping to capitalize on a boom that saw
cash flowing like so much black crude. After the drilling activity
lulled, the Johnsons returned to Austin.
He operated a mom and pop grocery store at 4403 Avenue B in the capital
city’s new Hyde Park development. (The Johnsons lived in a house next
By then, the Wilkes had moved to Ballinger,
but in the summer, young Leroy would return to Austin
to stay with his mother’s parents, who also lived on Avenue B. That’s
when Johnson became an important figure in Leroy’s life.
Avenue B extended to the northern edge of Austin,
giving Leroy plenty of open country to roam. Now around 12, he learned
to shoot from his uncle. Happily for a young man with a new single-shot
.22 Quackenbush rifle, a state-maintained slaughter pen near 45th
and Guadalupe attracted hundreds of pigeons.
“We had pigeon pie nearly every Sunday,” Wilke later recalled.
While it was natural enough for an old Indian fighter to teach his
nephew how to shoot, Johnson influenced Wilke’s later career as a
newspaperman and writer. Among his other skills, Johnson could set
type and probably helped Wilke get a job with an Austin
printing firm as a printer’s devil, melting lead type for reuse. Later,
Wilke operated his own modest print shop for a time.
In 1914, Wilke used his uncle’s typewriter to peck out a joke he sold
to Holland’s Magazine for 25 cents, the beginning of a 70-year writing
career. Published in Dallas,
the magazine paid him in postage stamps.
Well into his 60s, Johnson bought a farm off Manchaca Road, just north
of what is now Ben White Boulevard. Wilke spent the summer of 1914
working on his uncle’s farm.
those days, farmers relied heavily on mules for plowing and hauling.
For what he must have considered a bargain price, Johnson bought two
mules from the Butler
Brick Company, located where Zilker
Park is these days.
Mules are famously contrary, but the span Johnson purchased soon proved
to be the motor vehicle equivalent of lemons. When Johnson tried to
use them for plowing, all they wanted to do, no matter the level of
invective and other inducements directed toward them, was walk in
The mules would at least haul a wagon, but even then they could not
One day, Wilke drove a wagon downtown to sell a load of hay. He tied
the conveyance to a hitching post near the city hall at 8th and Colorado
and then walked downhill to Congress Avenue. When he came back he
discovered the mules had gotten loose and pulled the wagon down Colorado
Street toward the river.
Wilke managed to get the contrary mules under his control, sold the
hay, and took the proceeds back to his uncle.
Turned out that the mules had spent most of their lives hitched to
a rotating spar, walking in circles around vats to stir the clay mixture
used to make bricks.
That’s why the mules had become just about as set in their ways as
they had helped manufacture.
© Mike Cox
- April 9, 2014 column
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